Take a minute to imagine this: You have just bumbled your way through 400 miles of hell on wheels of the world’s biggest rally. You’ve ridden over hundreds of apartment building-sized sand dunes, through salt lakes and desert washouts, your brain on max revs for a full day, and you’ve made it to team base in the dead of night at 2:59am.
You rip off your gear and jump into your sleeping bag at 3:22am. Meanwhile, your knackered mechanics work feverishly on your bike, and at 4:10am you wake, get back in your kit, and face the starter at 4:30am for another day of physical and mental misery. This goes on for two full weeks.
The Dakar makes road racing look like a tea party on marshmallows.
I’ve managed to make a career out of being out of my depths. Give me the key to anything and I’ll give it a squeeze, from grand prix machines to trials bikes to side-by-sides, and every time I’ll attempt to at least look like I know what I’m doing.
Yet each new venture I try usually requires but two inputs: stay on the bike and don’t take someone out. My latest foray into rallying requires at least 10: stay on the bike; look at the map; decipher the map; scroll the map; watch the digital compass; hit the way point; don’t get lost; don’t take someone out; don’t hit boulders; stay on the bike…
This is the mental arithmetic a rally rider must go through thousands of times during a 400-plus mile stage on events like the Dakar. They also have to keep the throttle pinned for as long as humanly possible over unseen terrain, avoid slower riders, minimize the damage to body and bike, stay hydrated, and get to the end of the stage preferably before dark to get at least some meaningful sleep. Or not.
One good thing is, being an Australian of the metric system, the roadmap distances are in kilometers so I have no trouble remembering those during the crash course in navigating by American off-road legend, Quinn Cody. Oh, and the roadmap is in abbreviated French. I don’t know French.
And yet, as I drift through abandoned mining homes and around wrecked cars in the desert wastelands of Sageland, California, I think I might just be able to do this. Rally riding is high-speed multi-tasking, so by that notion most of Los Angeles’ texting and driving protagonists should be experts at this, and despite screwing up the very first turn on my map, my riding partner, Alexander Smith (yes, the same Alexander Smith who won the Baja 1000 solo after 32 hours straight on the bike!!!) and I are making great time.
“Trust your instincts,” he yells at me through helmeted head. “Don’t let others throw you off course, it’s one of the easiest ways to lose time”. He’s referring to the two riders ahead who have seen we’re coming but are clearly unsure of their own trajectory. It’s a game, a bit like the Choose Your Own Adventure books that, if you were born in the ’80s, you’ll remember. Choose wrong and god knows where you’ll end up; choose right and you’ll make big chunks of time.
I’m confident. I know I’m right and gun Alexander’s Husqvarna 501 practice bike toward a washout that vaguely looks like the symbol I’m staring at on the map. The glorious noise of Smith’s two-stroke Husky behind me tells me I’m on course, like the sound of an angel high on a premix hookah. If he isn’t there, I’ve made a wrong turn.
The sheep follow instinctively, and before long I’ve got five bikes behind me as we blast along the desert floor like conquering kings. Even though this is no race, knowing I’m making the right choices is filling the coffers with confidence.
Then I make a wrong one.
This is where I screw up, big time. The roadmap’s tulip (a small symbol indicating what’s coming up) says to look for a large monument, in his case a concrete slab that has no business being in the desert. And after taking the (very) long way to it, I make a grave error of turning right instead of hooking back left. I’m so confident in my decision that I pin it, riding back up the side of the hill I just crested.
But there’s no two-stroke angel riding shotgun. No Alexander. He’s stopped back at the slab, so I turn back and a couple of minutes later I see him down the track, shaking his head.
I’ve made a right dick of myself.
Overconfidence is the single most dangerous thing you can have on a motorcycle. It can get you lost or killed, thankfully, it was only the former.
“Have another look at the map,” Smith says, sounding like a teacher talking to a fourth grader, his impossibly wide genetic Smith smile shining through the helmet like cash money. Immediately I see the error or my ways, and I’m thoroughly pissed at myself for not paying close enough attention to what I was doing.
If this were a race I’d have just lost it.
For the next 30-odd miles I promise myself not to get suckered in again. As a result I slow the pace, down to crawling speed for someone of Alexander’s artistry, the mistakes begin to lessen, and we’re once again picking up speed.
A real test comes late in the 82km stage, with six riders – the same four plus two that were with me earlier and dropped me when I made the wrong turn – about to attack a seriously steep ascent.
I make the right and immediately it feels wrong.
“Trust your instincts,” the two-stroke angel whispers. Again, I know I’m right, and quickly hook left about 200 yards up the road. Boom! We’re on track, and every place I lost 20 minutes ago is made up at a time ratio of at least 2:1. We’re flying now, the two Husqvarnas riding in unison as the rest of the pack fumble with a hill they shouldn’t be on.
The teams were spread about two minutes apart at the start, and Alexander and I were the third team to set off, but we’re the first ones back. So to me, we’ve just taken the win – staggered starts be damned – and I’m freaking stoked.
Even though the stage was only 82km (51 miles), mentally, it was very taxing.
Then it hit me.
If this were the Dakar, on average, I’d still have seven more times the amount of riding remaining before I’d finished just one stage! Just one damn stage! Immediately, my respect for these ironmen and women of the motorcycle world just shot up. To do that distance, over that time, doing at the very least twice the speed I was going – man, that takes guts.
Maybe I could do the Dakar. It’s not impossible and my wife knows I can be the most stubborn bastard on the planet at times, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever even entertain the idea of competing, because I’ve had a sneak peak into this almost alien world of riding to us here in the States, and let me tell you it is by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done on a bike.
Good luck to any and all who race the Dakar, you guys are real heroes.
I’d like to thank Quinn Cody and the team that help put this event together to give me an insight into this awesome form of motorcycle sport.
Photography by Mark Kariya, Jesse Ziegler